A Rotarian partners with a Colonel to change lives in the North-East

Jawaharlal Nehru famously called it the Jewel of India; it is also the birthplace of polo and raasleela, and famous for its exotic landscape, gently undulating hills, emerald green valleys, dense forests and of course its unique Loktak Lake. When I first visited Manipur in 2002, the locals referred to it as the Switzerland of India. But Manipur has also been one of the troubled States of India and for quite some time its people have been expressing, along with other northeastern States, disenchantment with the Indian State. For decades this beautiful region has been rocked by violence and conflict and a parallel taxation system imposed by the insurgents. All this has severely impacted development, which even though visible to the naked eye, may not figure in our data on human development indicators, because its population is barely three million.

RC Bangalore Orchards President D Ravishankar and Paola at the Lyzon Friendship School that they have built in Singngat in Manipur.
RC Bangalore Orchards President D Ravishankar and Paola at the Lyzon Friendship School that they have built in Singngat in Manipur.

But if a three-day visit to this State turned out to be one of the most memorable assignments I have done as Editor of Rotary News for four and a half years, it is thanks to the focused and dedicated work done here by two remarkable human beings — Christopher Rego, a retired Colonel from the Indian Army, and D Ravishankar, President of RC Bangalore Orchards, who has made a stunning donation of ₹100 crore to The Rotary Foundation.

Their young partnership has already resulted in building of a beautiful school — the Lyzon Friendship School — in a village in Singngat block in Churachandpur district, about three hour’s drive from the Imphal airport, the extension of a hostel and improvement of other facilities in Ijeirong village, and a spanking new toilet for HIV/AIDS affected children in Churachandpur, infamous for drug addiction and shared needles resulting in spread of HIV.

There is a saying in Kannada that educating a girl is like opening a school; the same doesn’t happen with a boy. I am a huge fan of women.
– D Ravishankar, RC Bangalore Orchards

A military journey

Though Ravishankar is famous in the Rotary world, Rego needs an introduction. A fourth- generation military man from Bengaluru, a young Rego had his heart set on becoming an agricultural scientist and had secured admission to a prestigious agri institute in the city. But one fine day his grandfather incredulously asked him: “Are you seriously planning to spend the rest of your life pushing up a thermometer in animals’ bottoms?” Off he was packed to take the NDA (National Defence Academy) exam, and after he completed the course, to the India Military Academy in Dehradun. He joined the Indian Army in 1984, and in 2003, he requested to be posted to any unit in the North-East, and they said: “Before he changes his mind, give it to him,” chuckles Rego, as we negotiate the second stretch of the bumpy road from the Imphal airport to the Assam Rifles Officers Mess in Tuibong, Churachandpur.

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“My reasons for wanting to be in the NE were selfish; that area has plenty to offer for my hobbies, which include studying culture and traditions of people, nature and wildlife, travel and music, and also photography. I am a pianist and play seven instruments including the mouth organ and the guitar. I couldn’t carry the piano with me on my army postings, so sitting in the middle of the desert I learnt to play the flute and the mouth organ,” smiles Rego.

Through our two-day visits to a school in Singngat, where Ravishankar has donated ₹42 lakh to build a school, and the next day the Happiness Home where Brother Rama, a good Samaritan, looks after a bunch of HIV/AIDS children, Rego entertained the children with his music; the best part of which was singing songs, with Paola, Ravishankar’s wife, joining in with gusto, over a bonfire that sent a cheerful, happy glow that warmed not only the children’s bodies on a cold winter night but also their hearts.

Rego, who has put in 35 years of service (including his training) before retiring in 2016, was first posted to Meghalya in 2003 at the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, and next year to Mizoram.

 

A NE connect begins

“Most Army people don’t want to come to the NE because of the lack of good schools but at that time my children were small and I was okay,” he says. In Mizoram, he found a “lot of angst among local people towards ‘Indians’. Seeing so much resentment in many people, “my wife Myrna and I decided to find out where it came from.”

From L: Col Christopher Rego, Col Mukesh Verma and D Ravishankar.
From L: Col Christopher Rego, Col Mukesh Verma and D Ravishankar.

One of the causes he analysed is that for Army officers who come on short stints to the North-East, there isn’t the time or opportunity to really connect with the local culture. “Our boys coming from UP or Rajasthan are mostly vegetarian and they get put off by the cultural difference and stories that these people eat dog’s meat, etc. They cannot connect with the locals over either chana bhatura or Sachin Tendulkar! Very few people in the NE play cricket and Hindi movies are banned in Manipur, a diktat from the militants to prevent Hindi from taking over. So our soldiers come here with a handicap and before they know it their tenure is over,” says Rego.

But he and Myrna made a real effort to engage with the locals by visiting their homes, calling them to the Army camp, playing with their children, etc and in a short time became friendly with them. Noting his interest and connect with the locals, his bosses asked him to work on chipping away the resentment and distrust for the Indian State and the Army. “I found that this generation had seen the worst of the insurgency, and innocent people were caught in the fight between the Army and the militants. They resented soldiers from the “mainland” checking them in their own land, which was very essential as these are sensitive borders close to neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh (Mizoram shares a 722 km with these two countries).”

When the money we lent started coming back, we thought why are we salting our money in banks when it can change lives.
– Christopher Rego, Sunbird Trust

Then there was a feeling that “they celebrate their national festivals but not Christmas, as Mizoram has a sizable Christian population.” Rego was asked to prepare an appropriate celebration of Christmas.

 

A Christmas celebration

He quickly identified some artisans on the border of Bengal and Bangladesh who made Durga and Saraswati idols; got them to make life-size statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and recreate the Nativity scene. “They gave us the most beautiful statues and a platoon of boys from the headquarters helped to bring them to Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram. And the whole scene was put together at a popular bazaar where half of Mizoram comes to celebrate Christmas with a prominent message: ‘Assam Rifles wishes you a Merry Christmas’. It became such a big hit that the police sulked at the Army for not informing them in advance as the roads were choked and photographers were making a quick buck as people posed for pictures with this beautiful celebration of Christ’s birth.”

And with all Assam Rifles posts across Mizoram displaying a star with the greeting ‘Merry Christmas’, many hearts were won.

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Sponsoring children’s education

The Mizoram posting was more than a learning experience for Rego. The couple wanted to do something for the local children and started sponsoring their education by investing their savings and collecting funds from friends and family. After he had got ₹10,000 as compensation for moving to Mizoram, a tribal boy turned up one day saying that he had got admission to an American University and also the visa. “He needed money for the ticket and we decided to give the required money to him, including some contribution from our friends. But the strict condition was that the moment he starts earning he has to return the money, so it can help another child.”

To his utter surprise, the next year, when he was about to leave on posting to Bengaluru, the boy’s father turned up at his doorstep at the Assam Rifles camp in Aizawl with a huge pumpkin, some bananas, a shawl and a bundle of money. His son had earned the money doing chores at this college. But he said if you don’t mind there is another boy who needs money to complete his PG course. That boy returned the money in eight months, as he got a job in an IT company in Bengaluru. “So we thought why are we salting our money in banks when we can change lives? Our siblings, friends, etc joined in and the numbers grew.”

Col Chris Rego and his team.
Col Chris Rego and his team.

All this was done quietly when he was still in service. As the time to retire approached and he had the opportunity to choose his last posting, and instead of choosing his hometown Bengaluru, he asked to be posted in Manipur, and, being an Army engineer, he was posted with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), and got another big opportunity to be in the field, travel the length and breadth of Manipur and engage with the locals. But there was violence too; “a bomb was thrown outside our headquarters; some of our boys were kidnapped, and I was frequently delegated to resolve these issues.” This was his opportunity to find out more about the people’s reality, the diversity, the crucial issues, public perceptions, etc. The thought crystallised in his head to set up his own NGO. The day after he retired from the Army he took over as CEO of the Sunbird Trust.

 

When Ravi met Chris

Let’s now cut across to how Ravishankar and Paola came on the scene as angel investors for Rego and his Sunbird Trust. Paola and Rego were friends from their school days in Bengaluru; “she introduced me to Ravi over a year ago, and he saw one of my presentations, invited me over and after some discussions surprised me with a lovely cheque of ₹1 lakh. He also said I’d like to come to the NE and take a look.”

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Again, the Rotarian surprised Rego by buying not only his but also Rego’s flight tickets. They travelled first to the Majuli island in Assam, where Sunbird was sponsoring 100 children. Now here Rego has an interesting story to relate; that of 27-year-old Bipin Dhane from Maharashtra who wanted to join his team sometime ago. “When I told him to get some more experience, he said don’t worry about my qualification; I have graduated from IIT Kharagpur and have worked in Singapore for three years, but not happy with the corporate world he wanted to work with the children in the North-East.”

So Rego channelised some of his donors to him, as his praiseworthy objective is to “create a team of teams instead of just having my own team.” So now Dhane runs his own school with the locals through his Ayang Trust, but 90 per cent of his support comes from Sunbird.

Recalling his trip to this school in Majuli island on the Brahmaputra river, Ravishankar recalls being “half eaten up by the mosquitoes, because the caretaker, by mistake, gave me a room freshener instead of a mosquito repellent. There were so many mosquitoes that I thought they would lift me up!” But the next morning, seeing Dhane’s impressive work, he forgot the previous night’s trauma and strengthened his resolve to do more for “the neglected region of North-East”.

D Ravishankar, Paola and Shipra (right), wife of Col Mukesh Verma, interacting with the schoolchildren.
D Ravishankar, Paola and Shipra (right), wife of Col Mukesh Verma, interacting with the schoolchildren.

And that includes developing an entire campus for education, teachers’ training, skill development and vocational training and above all, women’s empowerment through self-finance ventures for which they will be trained to become entrepreneurs. “That is how I got my support from society… . I became an entrepreneur because society tolerated and supported me in so many little things. That tolerance and support I now want to pass on to other entrepreneurs. When I was struggling as a youngster, and when I say that society helped me, let me clarify that in my earlier years it was mostly women, including my own sisters who played such a huge role in making me what I am today,” says Ravishankar.

He adds: “There is a saying in Kannada that educating a girl is like opening a school; the same doesn’t happen with a boy. I am a huge fan of women. And in the North-East, you find everywhere that compared to women, men are more laid-back. In Imphal, you will find everywhere women selling vegetables and fruits in the market or on the streets, in biting cold. So I firmly believe that women should be strengthened.”

In Gulbarga, I want to help the nomadic tribes who sell their daughters due to poverty; in Udhagamandalam the Toda tribe needs help too.
– D Ravishankar

A joint venture

Ravishankar adds that this project on the Majuli island would be a joint project between his own club RC Bangalore Orchards, RC Palmville headed by Rtn Ritesh Goel, DG Mukul Sinha (RID 3291) and DG Sayantan Gupta from RID 3240. “This commitment has been made by all of them in the presence of PRID Shekhar Mehta at a recent meet in Kolkata,” he adds.

On Dec 4, accompanied by Rego, Goel and Bipin Dhane, Ravishankar met the Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal and discussions are on to get a 10-acre plot from the Government to set up such a centre.

After Majuli, Rego and Ravishankar travelled by road through Nagaland and went down to the Ijeirong village in Manipur where the NGO has a huge set up. “There Ravishankar ate with the locals, sang with the children and finally we went to Singngat where children couldn’t get to the school because floods had completely washed away the road that goes to the school. So we decided to shift the school to another spot.”

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When the village chief in an adjoining area heard about this plan, he offered free land. “He gave us the land but we were twiddling our thumbs for the money to build the school. And then comes Mr Santa Claus in the form of Ravi and he said let’s build the school. This was in Nov 2017, and I thought I have heard so many such promises.”

Around the same time in Ijeirong village where Sunbird has built a lovely hostel (read about that remarkable and heartrending initiative in the next issue) “we were having a huge water problem for the children and I told him we need to build a tank to store 75,000 litres of water and he said: ‘Okay, build it.’ Then we were trying to get into organic farming and wanted to buy the adjoining land from a farmer and Ravi said buy it! I was sceptical, but the moment he went to Bengaluru, he sent the cheque,” says Rego.

Till now Ravishankar has pumped in over ₹1 crore in helping Sunbird’s initiatives in the North-East. And herein lies the story behind his announcement of a ₹100 crore donation to TRF. “As I have often said before at Rotary meetings… I want to give back to society. I was doing all this work and wanted to do all this myself, but I realised that I have limitations. I am good at macro but not micro. This is where DG Suresh Hari comes in. I wanted to give my money to worthy causes and work with reliable people, of whom there is such a huge dearth. I am not very good at judging people also. I started committing money; I went to Gulbarga where the nomadic tribes sell their daughters due to poverty; in Udhagamandalam I wanted to do something for the Toda tribe.”

It was here that Hari cautioned him that if he continued to travel to distant places for various projects “you’ll kill yourself and won’t be able to achieve even 10 per cent of your dream.”

When the local people here see a Mr Sharma from Mumbai or a Khanna from Delhi sponsoring their children’s education, they start believing that the rest of India really cares for them.
– Christopher Rego

So he made the dramatic ₹100 crore donation announcement. His dilemma now is that he has already spent ₹1 crore and “committed another ₹2 or 3 crore more for these ventures. I have committed to these places and can’t go back on my promise and say that the money from TRF will take 18 months to flow into projects. Now I am struggling to find that money,” muses a worried Ravishankar.

Meanwhile, at the impressive entertainment that the children of the Singngat school have put together for us, Colonel Mukesh Verma, Commanding Officer of the 6 Sikh Light Regiment, and his wife Shipra participated. The parents and the children greet them with smiles, decorative head bands with flowers, and of course a tribal dance. Later he joins all of us for a sumptuous lunch prepared by a couple of village women in a hut which is spanking clean even though the fuel used is firewood under a chulah.

This is indeed a big statement in a State and a region of India where the Army units have long been greeted with ambushes, kidnappings, etc. Of course his security jeep, complete with gun-toting men, is there, but it is unobtrusive.

I come away marvelling at the kind of bridge of goodwill and trust that Rego has managed to build between our men in uniform and villagers in a part of India where disenchantment has reigned for long years. And he is changing the lives of tribal children in so many villages. As he puts it: “When the local people here see a Mr Sharma from Mumbai or a Khanna from Delhi sponsoring their children’s education, they start believing that the rest of India really cares for them.”

(To be continued)

 

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

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